"Black Nativity": Langston Hughes, the Musical

Black Nativity Kasi Lemmons' musical drama has a peculiar relationship to its declared source material, the Langston Hughes play of the same name. Langston Hughes exists in the movie's universe, to the extent that teenaged protagonist (Jacob Latimore) is named after him. Growing up poor in Baltimore, the troubled Langston is sent by his struggling mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) to spend Christmas in Harlem with the grandparents he's never met, the strict Reverend Cornell (Forest Whitaker) and his wife, Aretha (Angela Bassett). He arrives just in time for the annual Christmas Eve performance of Black Nativity at Cornell's church, though the play-within-the-movie doesn't draw heavily from Hughes' play. The picture's main storyline is Langston dealing with his fractured family and learning to make the right choices in life, and while that melodrama doesn't always mesh with the material of the play, during those scenes is when the film really comes alive, particularly in a Wiz-like dream sequence, and thanks in no small part to Mary J. Blige's "Angel" character. But the movie is so earnest, and the performances so joyous, the tonal issues become irrelevant. Black Nativity is also a musical outside the play, and Lemmons wisely gives Hudson verses even when she's geographically far from the action. Hopefully this isn't their last musical collaboration.

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